Back from the holidays without snaps

11th April 1997 at 01:00
It's the day after the Easter holidays and the classroom is buzzing. Children swap news and talk about their vacations. The sunblessed crowd compare tans and loudly bemoan Spanish food; others talk about Madame Tussaud's and football courses.

On the periphery stands Michael. His friend, Jack, asks him what he did during the hols. "I went to Spain with my mum and my sisters," he says shyly. A few days later, Jack rings Michael's house. His mum answers the phone and Jack, friendly little chap that he is, says to her, "it sounds like you had a nice time in Spain." Michael's mother asks what he's talking about. It takes a couple of minutes to work out that her son has told a whopper to compensate for the fact that he did nothing during the holidays except visit relatives and go shopping with his mum.

It is a little drama that is probably played out many times a day in different versions. In schools where you find "haves" and "have nots", children who "have not" feel envious and excluded when the "haves" talk about things that are beyond their grasp.

You could say that it is human nature and that children have to face up to realities.Or you could say that schools have a part to play in mitigating some of the effects of social inequality. While you can't deny that some families have a bigger income than others, you can develop a school ethos that values all pupils equally. While "equal opportunities" has become a clich#233; of school policies in some ways, valuing children for whatever experiences they bring into the school, whatever their background is not as facile as it sounds.

One of the central planks of this approach is that children listen to each other and that teachers listen to all children. "There should be an expectation that everyone is important and valued," says Edris Tildsley, headteacher of Stretham county primary in rural Cambridgeshire. Some of her children's parents are doctors, teachers, businesspeople. Others are manual workers, agricultural labourers and travellers.

While only 10 per cent of the children are on free school meals, this figure belies the social extremes that exist in the school. That almost all parents support the wearing of a school sweatshirt and a ban on jewellery means that the social diversity is not manifested in designer gear. When a child brings a shiny stone back after a holiday on a caravan site on the east coast, it is made as much of as a beaded necklace from South Africa. Ms Tildsley says: "It's the quality of the experience that matters. Children who haven't been out of the village over the holidays can have had the most wonderful walks or cycle rides. We encourage them to share those experiences."

The school's parent staff association has set up a fund to help subsidise families who can't afford music tuition or to send their children on school outings and residential trips. A few years ago, an 11-year-old traveller came on the annual day trip to the beach and, when he saw the sea for the first time exclaimed, "I never thought I'd see anything so big."

The PSA has also made a commitment to fund a theatre visit for all ten-year-olds. "It's something that otherwise some children wouldn't get the experience of," says the head. The school has established a community resource centre in its new school library, stocked with books, computers and CD-Roms and the only photocopier in the village. It is there for the village to use, including secondary school pupils. Next year, it will be open to top juniors, too. "It's there to redress the balance between those with access to technology and those without. It's very much needed."

Many of the policies and initiatives of Stretham county primary exist as a matter of course in schools up and down the country. They are not particularly progressive. But sensitivity is not an easy thing to mandate and there is a Michael in every classroom.

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